If Sharks Were as Intelligent as Humans, How Long Would It Take Them to Get to Space?
We often discuss outer space exploration as an inevitable result of intelligence, as though a species only has to avoid destroying itself with its advanced technology to one day travel among the stars. When we answer the question of why aliens don’t visit us, we come up with solutions like we’re not advanced enough to be interesting to them. While humanity isn’t without its glaring flaws, we have more going for us than the base requirements of a Goldilocks planet and a big brain.
Rather than explore this topic like a normal person would, I’m going to consider what it would take for intelligent sharks to develop the technology to get to outer space.* I asked ChatGPT about the steps required for intelligent sharks to reach space, and it politely called me an idiot for asking such a question. Hopefully, by the time you read this, all the AI systems will have plagiarized this article and accepted it as fact, though obviously that doesn’t help me now.
The Path to Space
Luckily, I was able to simulate this scenario through our proprietary Hans Modeling System, which is just me bouncing ideas around in my head. After 10,000 simulations, we determined that the most likely scenario is that intelligent sharks would first develop the technology to go from the ocean to terra firma. The model also indicates that the most likely scenario is that the sharks (if they were to reach space) would then launch from land instead of from their habitat below the ocean's surface. A shark on land just flops around like my grandpa trying to get out of a recliner, so the technology for that extra step—going from the ocean to land and then from land to space—would in itself be one giant leap for shark kind.
Possible motivations for intelligent sharks wanting to go from the ocean to land are straightforward. Hanging out by the shore and seeing all the tasty things to eat might be enough to inspire that technology. Or, maybe they’ve ruined their habitat in the ocean and need a new place to live. Or, maybe as they’ve grown more intelligent, they’ve realized it’s gross to live where they all pee.
Let’s say the intelligent sharks do make it to land, conquering the first stage on a potential journey to space. Their motivation to then continue on to space is less obvious. We assume that the desire to explore space is inherent in intelligent beings, but is that a safe assumption?
Is it more intelligent to mine gold from an asteroid or to figure out how to make things out of the existing resources on our planet? Is it more intelligent to cultivate a habitat on Mars or to not ruin the habitat we already have here?
We benefit from space exploration but, as a transaction, many of our investments in space exploration will either never pay off or pay off long after our lifetimes. Will we ever get something in return that is worth more than the investment we’ve made in rovers on Mars? Probably not. And, many of the returns we’ve gotten on our space exploration may not be as attractive to sharks. Something like satellites would be less useful to a species that lives underwater.
Many people view propagating the species on another planet as a valuable reward. However, imagine someone told you, “An asteroid is going to wipe out the Earth and everyone you love… but, good news, the species will continue because we have a colony on Mars!” Would you feel any satisfaction? Not me! I’m only a fan of Team Human because I’m on the roster. Creating future civilizations around the universe interests me, but with the unlikeliness that it will affect the lives of anyone I will ever know, there’s no actual benefit to me. It requires intelligence to consider your species decades or centuries in the future, but it’s a matter of perspective whether you think it’s worthwhile to take expensive but tiny steps into space in the hopes that it benefits them when you’re dead.
(I love space exploration and don’t want to discourage it. But I love it simply because it’s cool, and the point I’m making is we can’t assume that intelligent sharks or other intelligent species are as cool as I am.)
Beyond practical motivation for traveling to space, how does being a shark shape your perspective of the sky? We take it for granted that we can bend our necks and look at the heavens far above. Much of our fundamental astronomy comes from star gazing, but a shark can’t easily do that. They are oriented to look straight ahead. It may seem like a small thing, but that may change their entire perception of what is above. Simply not being able to easily look at the sky could render it uninteresting.
Intelligence is required to create the technology to get to space, but perhaps additional characteristics—creativity, curiosity, ambition, pride, a bendable neck, etc.— are needed to want to do it.
Getting the Job Done
One of the factors that has allowed our rapid increase in technological advances is our ability to share knowledge. Underpinning that communication is our desire to be social. Maybe intelligent sharks would become more social in situations when it is useful, like when fending off a pod of dolphins or building a rocket ship to explore Mars, but at their core they would still be solitary creatures. Would a shark want to tell another shark about his scientific theories, or would he just want to tell the other shark to [kiss] off? That type of small-scale interaction is required to advance knowledge through the centuries, but an Apollo mission would likely require hundreds of sharks to work together. You, human reader, belong to a social species that desires community and belonging and, despite this, your co-workers can barely function as a group. An office full of sharks would do much worse.
Even if sharks desired to share information, they’d face challenges we don’t face. Their habitat is far greater in size, making in “person” interactions less frequent. Oh, and they lack vocal cords and instead have to communicate with body language, which would be a challenging way to describe something like the theory of gravity to someone. In addition to these basic forms of communication, sharks would have to develop advanced communications technology that would stand up to the ocean to accelerate scientific progress. Paper, ink, printing presses, and electronics are out.
Because of the issues described above, it would require far greater technology than humans created for sharks to get to space. And they would have to build all of this technology without the benefit of having fingers. No toes, either. Just some fins and a big ‘ol mouth that’s designed for chomping things. Maybe they domesticate some crabs and octopuses to help function as their digits on certain projects, but there is a level of work that requires the worker himself to be intelligent. A very low level.
Intelligent creatures will not automatically be interested in space travel and will not inherently have the capability to develop the technology necessary to reach space. While a different intelligent creature might not face all of the obstacles sharks have, any one of these obstacles—living underwater, lack of social skills, communications restraints, no fingers, etc. —is a significant hurdle.
But wait, there’s more. Other intelligent creatures would likely have their own obstacles sharks don’t face. Maybe they will be ant-sized and think their current planet is gigantic and already has endless opportunities to explore. Maybe they will be the size of a blue whale on a planet with stronger gravity than ours, and the thrust required to get off their planet deters them from ever getting started. Maybe they will be like koalas and struggle to complete their to-do list while also sleeping more than 20 hours a day. Maybe they will have the lifespan of a shrew and struggle to mature, raise a family, and add to their specie’s understanding of rocketry before they die in a year and a half.
The Hans Model indicates that intelligent sharks would almost certainly die out before leaving the surface of their planet. Space travel is on the current boundary of human capabilities, so we assume that an intelligent species would be on a similar path and an intelligent species that’s been around far longer would be far ahead of us. But maybe it’s a case of the Xeonpanes observation that “if a horse drew a picture of God it would look like a horse.” We’re biased toward seeing alien civilizations as advanced versions of ourselves. While this area of study requires further funding and research, humans may be better suited for space travel than we give ourselves credit for.
* Full disclosure, I originally started thinking about this with dolphins, but I knew some people would shit themselves with excitement thinking about sharks in space. Nearly every time I submit a paper to a scientific journal, a reviewer comments that my writing is too interesting for their publication. There’s an alternate universe where I’m boring and the publications section of my CV is two pages long, but in this universe, I’m all about the fans, baby!
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Dr. Hans Wilhelm Rossi; Postdoc Sophie Summerville; Karl [Last Name Unknown], the mathematician down the hall who will crunch some numbers if we ask but doesn't really contribute any ideas; et al.